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Friday, June 25, 2010

A "ritual nick" too far

June 25, 2010
By Victoria Moore - The Sydney Morning Herald

In October 1992 a program went to air on ABC TV called Where Angels Fear to Tread on female genital mutilation. I was involved through a program the ABC offered to aspiring writers called Writer-in-Observation.

The storyline was of a young schoolgirl of Muslim background who was brought to the surgery by her mother to have a procedure performed that involved female genital mutilation. This placed the doctors in a dilemma. It was a procedure that although not banned at the time was strongly advised against by the Australian Medical Association, leaving individual doctors to make their own ethical decisions.

The arguments made were that if Australian doctors did not perform this procedure, it would, much like the abortion debate, lead to back-alley bungling or the girl being taken overseas to have the procedure.

The young girl, herself, it was revealed, had serious doubts, but the pressure from within her community to have the procedure was extreme. Pressure that was brought to bear by the mothers and grandmothers and, indeed, the euphemism most commonly used was "going to grandma's".

In 1994, two years after the screening of this episode, the AMA banned all forms of female genital mutilation Australia-wide. But, now here in Australia, it has been suggested that a "ritual nick" could be performed to appease cultural sensibilities in some Muslim communities.

The idea for a "ritual nick" was raised by the American Academy of Paediatrics, and promptly retracted. The procedure is a prick or nick of a girl's clitoral skin.

It is a less severe form of female genital mutilation, which in its most acute form, called infibulation, involves the removal of the clitoris, the labia minora and the sewing up of the labia majora covering the urethra and leaving only a small vaginal opening. In some countries still, if a girl has not had this procedure performed she is considered unworthy of marriage. It also makes childbirth extremely dangerous — can you imagine giving birth through a vagina that has been sewn up so that only a very small opening remains? Doctors in London 30 years ago were forced to perform hysterectomies to save the lives of Middle Eastern women who had given birth after enduring female genital mutilation.

And yet as this idea of a "ritual nick" gains media coverage here, attitudes against female genital mutilation continue to advance throughout the Middle East. Egypt, for example, now performs these "ritual nicks" as opposed to the more severe form of mutilation, but infibulation is still prevalent in East African countries and small communities in Asia. It is estimated that between 4 and 5 million of these procedures are performed annually world-wide.

In Muslim countries where these customs are still being observed, there are woman taking great risks, sometimes life threatening, to protect their young girls from these practices. They themselves want it to cease once and for all. If we in Australia legitimise these practices, however ritualistically, it will totally negate their work, their beliefs and their futures. Now is not the time to succumb to this tradition.

Indeed in Switzerland it is not only illegal to peform these types of procedures, but children can also be removed from their parents if it is found that they have subjected them to female genital mutilation. This has resulted in all but ceasing the practice in the East African immigrant population in that country.

The federal government should pass into law all the recommendations of the Australian Medical Association that have been in place since 1994 so that female genital mutilation, in whatever form, is not performed here.

Victoria Moore is a freelance writer now living in regional Victoria.